The Problem of Protecting Proprietary Games
Over the last few years I've analyzed, played, written and spoken about scores of proprietary games with vulnerabilities to card counting, hole-carding and other straightforward advantage play techniques. With years of blow back from what comes out of my big mouth, I have come to the conclusion that companies that create proprietary games often don't know their games' weaknesses, don't want to know their games' weaknesses, and don't want anyone else talking about their games' weaknesses. The reason for this is obvious: games with known advantage play weaknesses are a hard sell.
The difference between what's known about games in the public domain and those that are proprietary is remarkable. Amazon.com shows 1533 books for the search "blackjack," while giving 169 books for the search "blackjack" and "card counting." The extraordinary books on game security written by Bill Zender and Steve Forte devote hundreds of pages to baccarat, blackjack, craps and roulette. Meanwhile, "Three Card Poker" lists 16 books on Amazon, only 3 of which cover hole-carding. The most thorough book written on the subject of exploiting proprietary games, "Exhibit CAA, Beyond Counting" by James Grosjean, is not available to the public. While dozens of websites are devoted to blackjack card counting, the only website I've found that is dedicated to providing information on exploiting weaknesses of proprietary table games is a blog run by retired computer guru Stephen How, at discountgambling.net.
An argument can reasonably be made in favor of the safety of proprietary games. It appears that exploitable proprietary games are not common, or the wagering on them is generally low-level, or that due to lack of information there is no one skilled enough to beat them. Back in 2003, I sat at a table full of advantage players at a major strip casino with a dealer clearly flashing her hole-card at Three Card Poker; a nifty 3.48% edge over the house. One player at the table was wagering $1200 a hand. Others were in the $100 - $500 range per hand. The boss watching the game said: "Management here doesn't have a clue and they want me to let you guys play, so play!" We played this dealer's full eight hour shift. Nowadays, management at most casinos understands the hole-card problem with Three Card Poker.
I have worked for several years as a game development consultant and mathematician. Whenever I see a potential game protection problem with a client's game, I immediately point it out. Most developers are not thrilled to hear the news. After digesting what I have to say, some work to create a version that solves the issue. Others want me to produce mathematics that itemizes how dangerous the issue really is; documentation they can include with their product. A fair number simply ignore my warnings.
There are several reasons that management struggles with proprietary games. For many of these games, the rules are complex; just learning the game and training dealers can be a chore. Moreover, basic strategy is often unknown, so developing heuristics for identifying advantage play is not realistic. Operationally, many of these games are error prone, so management is constantly monitoring for dealer mistakes. If lower management does suspect an issue, it can be a challenge to contradict senior management (like my Three Card Poker experience noted above). Finally, there's no guarantee that a new game won't replace it in a few weeks.
Behind these struggles is a pent up fear of the vulnerabilities of proprietary games. Unfortunately, this fear is justified. It takes specialized knowledge to identify that advantage play is taking place at a proprietary game. Even after an issue is identified, few can tell the difference between games that have small vulnerabilities from those that can be crushed. There are horror stories of games that have been placed only to have the host casino beaten silly in the first few days. In the wake of this lack of credible information, overreaction is common. But this is not the usual story.
Most often, a proprietary game is placed onto the floor based on the credibility of the company licensing it and its performance numbers for the placements the game already has. What, if anything, do licensing companies tell their prospective clients about advantage play issues? What if these companies don't know their own games well enough to give fair warnings? What if warnings drive prospective customers away from their games? What if games that represent huge investments are fundamentally flawed? That is where we are today. Companies have disincentives to consider advantage play issues. Games are routinely placed that have real issues.
There has never been a better time to be an advantage player. Forget blackjack. Forget baccarat, craps and roulette. There are more games on more casino floors that can be beaten than ever before. There is an ever-growing base of players who understand the vulnerabilities of these games. There is an ever broadening body of knowledge these players share about beating proprietary games. And there is an ever-expanding gap between the games that surveillance and management should be protecting and those they are protecting.
Proprietary games are changing the face of the modern table game pit. Casino management must assume that every proprietary game on their floor has advantage play issues. Every time a new game is put in, there are critically important questions management should ask the developer or licensor:
What research have you done to consider advantage play issues for this game?
Are there any instances of this game being beaten by advantage players in actual placements?
(If there are dealer hidden cards) is this game vulnerable to hole-carding?
(If multiple rounds are dealt between shuffles) is this game vulnerable to card counting or shuffle tracking?
What other methods of advantage play can be used to target this game?
Are you kidding me?
Game developers and licensors should do their due diligence in discovering advantage play issues with their games. These companies should routinely disclose issues as they arise and offer policies and procedures that can be used to protect their games. Casinos should not learn after-the-fact that a game they've placed is vulnerable. The stigma of a game that can be beaten must become the expectation that every game can be beaten.
As James Grosjean said: "There is an edge in every game ...the trained player is like a virus ... the host eventually will discover the virus, but by then the damage is extensive."